Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones pose with Little Amal

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, who reimagined the art of puppetry, receive honorary degrees

Scott Anderson

Over four decades, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones have reinvented the art of puppetry, entertaining millions around the world with their life-size – and lifelike – human and animal puppets.

They are probably best known for the large, highly expressive equine puppets they created for the hit play "War Horse" in 2007, earning them a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award and an Olivier Award in the United Kingdom.

The pair’s Handspring Puppet Company’s theatrical productions have raised awareness of political and social issues among audiences in more than two dozen other countries, including their native South Africa.

Today, in recognition of their innovation and creativity in the art of puppetry, and for their commitment to social justice, Jones and Kohler each received a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.

In a TED Talk around the time "War Horse" opened in New York, Jones and Kohler demonstrated how three actors were required to bring their hand-crafted horse to life using specially constructed gears and triggers to manipulate the creature’s tail, legs, head and ears – even its breath. It was this semblance of breathing, along with careful attention to the horse’s movement, that made the puppets seem authentically alive, Kohler explained.

Their portrayal of animals on stage, with no obviously human traits, is also highly distinctive. In "War Horse," “people are seeing a fully sentient and emotional animal,” Jones told The Independent. “I think that we are the first ever to do that.”

Jones and Kohler met at art school in 1971 and soon fell in love. Kohler had spent time in his teens making puppets with his mother and, though he was studying sculpture, was still interested in the artform. Jones initially hated puppets. “I thought they were so beneath me,” he said during the TED Talk. “I wanted to become an avant-garde artist. Sesame Street and Punch and Judy was not where I wanted to go.” 

He began to change his mind after Kohler introduced him to the West African Bamana tradition of puppetry for adults. “After that, it was just a small step for me to assent to Adrian’s suggestion to return to South Africa and start a puppet company,” he told Creative Feel, a South African arts magazine, in 2017.

In the early days of Handspring, the couple toured children’s shows around South Africa using a truck converted into a caravan with bunks, a fridge and a stove. At first, they worked on all aspects of the company together. Over time, though, Kohler became the puppet craftsman, while Jones assumed the role of producer. Both still perform on stage.

Throughout their career, Jones and Kohler have often chosen to work on stories about bridging society’s divisions. "Ubu and the Truth Commission" (1997) – which combined puppetry with live actors, animation and documentary footage – was one of the first plays to be based on the hearings of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Or You Could Kiss Me" (2010) follows a gay couple through a lifelong relationship. For a more recent project, "The Walk" (2021), about the experience of refugees, they helped create Little Amal – a 12-foot puppet of a child who travels on foot from the Turkey-Syria border through continental Europe to England.

Little Amal’s journeys took her to the southeast corner of U of T’s St. George campus, with stops at the Hospital for Sick Children and Convocation Hall. She is also scheduled to appear in locations across the city as part of the Luminato Festival.

In their convocation address, Jones and Kohler urged graduates to take risks. “Do not be afraid to pursue the marginal, unhip or financially unpromising,” they said. Noting that their own work, which they have found immensely rewarding, began in a “marginal and neglected area,” they advised graduates that “out of the shadows can come great innovation” and “out of the occluded, love and humanity can find new expression.”

Through the Handspring Trust, Jones and Kohler have assisted the careers of artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and have enabled adolescents from historically disadvantaged townships in South Africa to attend university. They have also been outspoken gay rights activists. They participated in Johannesburg’s first-ever Pride Parade and have produced two plays about queer love.

During the last 10 years, the couple have been collaborating with U of T and the University of the Western Cape on a cross-cultural inquiry into the poverty of rural children, Indigenous oppression and storytelling, and environmental sustainability. Yesterday, they participated in a panel discussion with Lawrence Switzky, an associate professor of English and drama at U of T Mississauga, at Innis College Town Hall.

For their artistic achievements, Jones and Kohler have received a Kennedy Center Gold Medal in the Arts and a Tony Award, among many other distinctions.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones at the podium inside Convocation Hall
Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones at the podium inside Convocation Hall (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

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